KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 24 July 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
I. RUSSIA: TOTAL ECLIPSE OF SOVIET-ERA CHIEF RABBI. With the
appointment in March of Berl Lazar in place of Adolf Shayevich on the
presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations, the Putin
administration placed its definitive seal of approval on the former as the
legitimate leader of Russia's Jews. Keston News Service heard widely
differing accounts of the dispute between the two chief rabbis from a variety
of Jewish commentators, some of whom mentioned the role in the affair of
out-of-favour oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky. One representative told Keston
that Judaism 'should not be a card in some kind of political game - the
consequences are always bad. Politics should not interfere in religion.'
II. RUSSIA: RIVAL JEWISH ORGANISATIONS BATTLE FOR
SUPREMACY. Whereas Berl Lazar's eclipse of Adolf Shayevich as chief
rabbi now appears to be total (see separate KNS article), the battle for
hegemony between the two Jewish leaders' religious organisations is still
underway. And just as the seemingly insurmountable obstacle to becoming
chief rabbi of his non-Russian citizenship has been removed, so the
identification of Lazar's organisation with a minority strain of Judaism is
proving no impediment to its bid to represent the majority of Russia's
I. RUSSIA: TOTAL ECLIPSE OF SOVIET-ERA CHIEF RABBI
by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service
With the appointment in March of Berl Lazar in place of Adolf Shayevich on
the presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations, the
Putin administration placed its definitive seal of approval on the former as
the legitimate leader of Russia's Jews. Until the Council reshuffle, the two
chief rabbis were both routinely included on the guest lists of prominent
church-state functions, such as last November's Interreligious Peace Forum
in Moscow. By contrast, the two rival leaders of another divided confession
in Russia � Islam - still are.
As an Italian-born US citizen, Lazar's meteoric rise to the top of Russia's
religious establishment is particularly remarkable. In order to rank among
the minimum ten persons comprising the legal entity of a religious
organisation, according to Russia's 1997 law on religion, a foreign citizen
must be 'permanently and legally resident in the Russian Federation'. The
two Catholic apostolic administrations (dioceses) of southern European
Russia and eastern Siberia are still without legal status because the foreign
citizens who head them have been denied residence permits. Officials told
Bishop Clemens Pickel, a German, and Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Pole, that the
only way they could obtain a residence permit - let alone Russian citizenship
- would be 'to marry a Russian'. Lazar was evidently given no such
ultimatum - his wife is a US citizen.
Lazar was voted chief rabbi at a 13 June 2000 conference in Moscow
attended by approximately 140 representatives of Jewish communities
throughout Russia and 26 predominantly Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis. The
question of whether this gathering had a mandate to speak for the majority of
the country's practising Jews is still keenly disputed. Shayevich was
'appointed during Soviet times to follow the government line,' according to
Avrohom Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish
Communities of the CIS (of which Lazar's Federation of Jewish
Communities of Russia - commonly known by its Russian acronym 'FEOR' -
is the key member). Lazar, by contrast, 'was democratically elected,'
Berkowitz told Keston News Service on 26 March, 'the majority of
communities are within the federation [FEOR] and so voted for him.'
A board member of the Russian Jewish Congress, which until 1 March was
presided over by out-of-favour oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, Tankred
Golenpolsky maintained that at the 13 June meeting there had been no one
present - 'least of all Shayevich' - from the Gusinsky-backed rival
organisation to FEOR, the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and
Organisations of Russia (commonly also known by its Russian acronym,
KEROOR). In an interview with Keston on 4 April, Golenpolsky likened the
June meeting to the recent take-over of Gusinsky-owned independent
Russian television station NTV: 'the people concerned weren't there.'
In fact, however, a handful of KEROOR representatives were invited to the
13 June meeting, head of 'Khesed Barukh' Jewish community Igor Bukhman
told Keston in Kursk (335 miles, 540 kilometres south of Moscow) on 19
May, of whom he was the only one to address the meeting - and voice
opposition to the chief rabbi vote. 'I said that this open argument is
inadmissible - first one and then the other going to the Kremlin - there
shouldn't be fights between rabbis over political interests,' said Bukhman. In
his view, Judaism 'should not be a card in some kind of political game - the
consequences are always bad. Politics should not interfere in religion.'
Whereas Bukhman considered the chief rabbi dispute to be '80 per cent
political,' Golenpolsky doubted that it had any religious basis whatsoever.
'The whole thing was political: content, not even overtones,' he remarked.
And while Bukhman merely suspected that Lazar was elected chief rabbi 'in
order to kick the political stool from under Gusinsky,' commenting that 'it
happened because the rabbis allowed it to happen,' Golenpolsky laid the
blame for the action squarely on the Putin government: 'Gusinsky, with his
money, allowed organisations to be independent, which the government does
not want.' According to director of KEROOR Zinovy Kogan, Vladimir Putin
initially accepted Shayevich as part of an inherited nomenklatura, but when
in early 2000 Shayevich conveyed a request to the Russian president from
by-then persona non grata Gusinsky to attend a Kremlin prize-giving
ceremony, he became furious: 'from that point onwards Shayevich was
Gusinsky's man in his eyes.'
Berkowitz, by contrast, argues that Gusinsky had no bearing on events. Even
after Gusinsky had left his post as president of the Russian Jewish Congress
and could therefore no longer be considered a factor, he pointed out, Lazar
had still replaced Shayevich on the presidential religious council: 'The
government is respecting the decision of the Jewish communities.'
Apparent indications of government support for Lazar since his election
have included the signing in late June 2000 of a contract outlining
cooperation between FEOR and the Ministry of Culture, a September 2000
meeting between a senior representative of the general public prosecutor's
office and Lazar as representative of Russia's entire Jewish community, and
prominent visits by President Putin to FEOR's main synagogue in Marina
Roshcha in September and December 2000. Only the replacement of
Shayevich by Lazar on the presidential Council, however, has provoked
public protest from KEROOR communities at 'such clear discrimination
against traditional Judaism in favour of Chabad, represented by Lazar'.
Speaking to Keston on 8 June, Kogan was in fact unable to suggest any other
instance of clear preference, and maintained that the transition period in
which one or other, or both, chief rabbis might be asked to represent Russia's
Jews is not yet over. Whereas Lazar is the sole Jewish representative among
the trustees of the recently-founded All-Russian National Military Fund,
explained Kogan, Shayevich was invited to an official visit by Queen
Beatrix of the Netherlands in early June. He admitted, however, that
KEROOR has already learned that only Lazar will be invited to state
commemorations of Revolution Day on 7 November.
To what extent does the dispute concern Jews in Russia's provinces? In the
city of Petrozavodsk (575 miles, 925 kilometres north of Moscow), the
independent Jewish community 'does not care at all' who is chief rabbi, its
leader Dmitri Tsvibel told Keston on 19 April. In his view, the arguments in
Moscow 'are all about money and sphere of influence, nothing else', with the
absence of a religious element in the dispute reinforced by the fact that 'it is
not clear what Lazar represents - there is nothing from either Lazar or
Shayevich on doctrinal issues, no theoretical articles'. Tsvibel saw the
institution of chief rabbi of Russia as in any case highly unnatural. 'It is not
the practice for Jews to have a chief rabbi. Each community lives its own life
with no structures, no heads. Christians have a strict hierarchy, but we don't.
And two chief rabbis - that's a lot.'
Besides the individual financial interests of its members, Tsvibel suggested
to Keston that one reason for government support for Lazar's active
organisation might be to convince the United States that, since the Jewish
community was experiencing healthy growth, there were no problems with
antisemitism in Russia. Bukhman, however, thought ill-feeling towards Jews
would only increase in Russia as a result of what had happened: 'I doubt that
a strain of Judaism led by foreigners can be supported by the Kremlin for
very long. There will be accusations of the Fifth Column.' Golenpolsky
agreed. Quite apart from the fact that 'antisemitism existed, exists and will
always exist in various forms here,' he remarked, 'people will look at this
situation and think, "What are those bastards up to again?"' (END)
II. RUSSIA: RIVAL JEWISH ORGANISATIONS BATTLE FOR
by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service
Whereas Berl Lazar's eclipse of Adolf Shayevich as chief rabbi now appears
to be total (see separate KNS article), the battle for hegemony between the
two Jewish leaders' religious organisations is still underway. And just as the
seemingly insurmountable obstacle to becoming chief rabbi of his non-
Russian citizenship has been removed, so the identification of Lazar's
organisation with a minority strain of Judaism is proving no impediment to
its bid to represent the majority of Russia's practising Jews. Since its
foundation in late 1999, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia
(commonly known by its Russian acronym, FEOR) has gradually
transformed itself from a wholly Chabad-Lubavitch body into a 'religious
organisation of Orthodox Judaism.'
FEOR has undergone dramatic growth in its few years' existence, as it wages
a campaign to revive Jewish life throughout Russia. 'This is the most
dramatic growth in a Jewish community anywhere in the world,' executive
director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (of which
FEOR is the key member), Avrohom Berkowitz, told Keston News Service
on 26 March, 'people are just coming out of the woodwork.' 'I have to give
them credit, they're working like son-of-a-guns,' Russian Jewish Congress
board member and editor of the International Jewish Gazette
('Mezhdunarodnaya Yevreiskaya Gazeta') Tankred Golenpolsky remarked to
Keston on 4 April. 'I can only make comparisons with a paramilitary
organisation - they go on vigils at 3 am.'
Claiming 80 member communities throughout Russia at the time of Lazar's
election last June, by March this year, according to Berkowitz, FEOR had
approximately 130. By the same month Shayevich's Congress of Jewish
Religious Communities and Organisations (also known by its Russian
acronym, KEROOR) was claiming 124 member communities - but at 197
the number of registered Jewish communities falls well short of the
combined total. Either someone is exaggerating or, as Golenpolsky
suggested, 'the wise ones might be taking from both sides'.
There certainly appears to be at least a modicum of 'disinformation', as head
of the independent Jewish religious community in Petrozavodsk, Dmitri
Tsvibel, pointed out to Keston on 11 April: FEOR's website claims his
community to be a member, which it has never been. 'It is very likely that
both organisations claim more member groups than in fact exist,' remarked
Tsvibel, laughing. 'This would make good material for a comedy sketch.'
The major argument against whether the FEOR can fully represent the
Jewish community is not its size, however, but its identity as a Chabad-
Lubavitch (or Hassidic) organisation, while the majority of Russia's
practising Jews are Orthodox. Significantly, this also impedes FEOR's
membership of Russia's club of 'traditional' religions, since Orthodox
Judaism is widely regarded as the traditional form of Judaism in Russia.
Undeterred, FEOR stopped using the distinguishing term 'Hassid Khabad' in
its title in early 2000. Today Berkowitz insists that the organisation is not
only Hassidic: 'This is a misnomer. It is all-embracing. FEOR's spiritual
leaders may be Hassidic rabbis but they do not aim to build up a Hassidic
community here.' He even suggests that FEOR represents the traditional
Jewish community of Russia, 'because we are trying to bring back what was
here 100 years ago - when there weren't any labels such as Hassidism.'
Considering that the number of registered Hassidic communities in Russia is
a mere four, FEOR has evidently - and apparently against Russia's law on
religion - not been insisting that its member organisations define themselves
as such. FEOR has achieved the final qualification to be considered the
principal Jewish organisation in Russia. Around March this year, the
Ministry of Justice official in charge of the registration of religious
organisations, Viktor Korolyov, told Keston on 30 May, FEOR introduced
an amendment to their charter renaming themselves 'Religious Organisation
of Orthodox Judaism "Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia".'
Despite their praise for FEOR's work, however, not all of Keston's
interviewees are convinced. 'FEOR is entirely Hassidic,' Golenpolsky
claimed, 'and its aim is the overt spread of Hassidism.' On 19 May head of
Kursk Jewish community 'Khesed Barukh', Igor Bukhman, told Keston
'without doubt I consider FEOR to be a Chabad organisation'.
Although Bukhman claimed that 'the situation in Moscow means nothing to
us' when Keston spoke to him in Kursk, the two central Jewish organisations
appear to be making a concerted effort to encourage provincial communities
to join them. FEOR has made 'persistent attempts' to get the Kursk
community to leave KEROOR and join them, Bukhman told Keston, 'but
we're not going. If it weren't for the conflict we would have, but we decided
that it was a political conflict and so not to join them.' Recently, he added,
'KEROOR have started to get a move on. In the past few months they gave
us a little bit of money - before that nothing at all. There is now competition
to stop groups going over to the other organisation.'
The Petrozavodsk community is currently in the very unusual situation of
being entirely independent due to support from personal contacts abroad.
The city is twinned with the German town of Tubingen, where a Lutheran
pastor, Paul Zeller, raised 26,000 Marks for the Jews of Petrozavodsk, with
which they have been able to buy otherwise prohibitively expensive items
such as a Torah and computers.
The community is nevertheless currently considering joining FEOR, said
Tsvibel, 'only because they will help us with money to build a synagogue'.
However, he stressed that 'we don't want them dictating to us from Moscow
what we should do'. When the community had preliminary discussions with
FEOR about joining, said Tsvibel, 'they wanted us to adopt their charter, but
we said we either join with ours or not at all, to which they agreed'.
Following Lazar's election in June last year, several observers predicted
numerous provincial conflicts should FEOR start to claim historical Jewish
property on the strength of their Ministry of Culture agreement. Director of
KEROOR Zinovy Kogan could recall only one such instance, commenting,
however, that 'there will be more.' In the instance concerned, according to a
letter to KEROOR from its community in Omsk, the governor of Omsk
region, Leonid Polezhayev, and the governor of Chukotka, Roman
Abramovich (who is also president of the main FEOR synagogue in
Moscow), called at the Omsk synagogue on 11 December 2000. The two
governors asked who funded the KEROOR community, how much it
received and what it would require 'for a normal existence,' wrote
community leader Leonid Khait. On being given a sum the governors were
reportedly astonished, and replied, 'we could double or triple that, it is no
sum to us'.
According to Khait, the governors then asked about the synagogue's Torah,
which had been reclaimed by a local museum after its term of lease had
expired, as well as the building itself, which Khait was trying to get returned
to the community. The Omsk governor then promised 'to resolve the
problem of the Torah, and said not to go to court about the building as he
would buy it for us for however much was asked'. At the end of the
conversation, wrote Khait, Abramovich queried 'why our community is not a
member of FEOR and recommended that we think about it'.
'This is the crudest interference on the part of the authorities,' commented
Kogan to Keston on 8 June. 'It is as if two US governors went into a Catholic
church and told the people there that they should become Protestant.'
Although Khait initially appealed for 'some kind of measures to oppose
Chabad', his community has since transferred to FEOR.
In Russia the practice of Judaism appears to be simply one activity - and a
minority one at that - within the Jewish community. Golenpolsky confirmed
that 'Russian Jews have been very remote from religion as it is. Both sides
tend to pretend that they have converted to religion but after 70 years it is
absolutely secular and the third generation knows nothing.' Although he
pointed out that both central organisations were attempting to work with
Jewish children - 'that's nice' - Golenpolsky thought this would introduce
them only to Jewish culture and history, 'religion needs another 50 years.'
In Petrozavodsk, the five-year-old religious community of 25 is just one part
of an entire Jewish centre conducting charitable and cultural activity, and the
planned new synagogue, said Tsvibel, would reflect this by including a
canteen, school and medical centre. In Kursk, Bukhman told Keston, there
are up to 30 regularly practising Jews within the 200-strong community,
which is also very active in the charitable and educational spheres.
FEOR's new, five-storey synagogue in the Marina Roshcha district of
Moscow is no exception to this trend. In addition to its richly-built main
worship hall, Berkowitz showed Keston a large community hall with dance
floor and bar, library-cum-internet cafe and full-size sports hall: 'You
wouldn't find all that in a Hassidic synagogue. It is all for the general Jewish
community - 95 per cent of the lay leadership are secular people, the
Hassidic community is actually very small.' The overwhelmingly secular
interests of Russian Jews - including at the political level - are clearly
shaping the revival of their religious life. (END)
Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.